Fathers and Sons

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. He died a few days after his 90th birthday in 2018. He didn’t suffer—had rarely been ill in his life. The end came fast from the first phone call I received from his wife Sonya informing me he had been admitted to the hospital and the next day call telling me he was gone. She organized a fast memorial at their church and didn’t invite me. She said, “I didn’t think you would want to come.”

I would have gone. Because I grieved for the love we never shared? Because a son, an only child son, ought to attend his father’s memorial? Because my blood bond with him was stronger than theirs, his adoptive children and grandchildren? To prove a point? To be a reminder to all the people I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have wanted to know, that this man their friend had had another life, a life before Alabama, a life that in no way at all resembled the life he lived there in exile from everything that came before? To stand in isolation of all that?

I didn’t grieve his death. As I hadn’t enjoyed his life. Very late in our lives, a few years before he died, I called him and told him I thought he had never loved me. His response was that he believed I had never loved him. A father and son who perhaps had loved one another but never could accept that love and lived in the doubt of being unloved.

I don’t grieve him today on this death anniversary. I have a portrait of him hanging in my bedroom, a tinted photograph of my father when he was perhaps thirteen. He’s a handsome boy. He was a handsome young man. I see myself in that portrait. I see my sons. The bloodlines are evident.

In so many ways I constructed my life to be different from his. I rejected his masculinity, his love of hunting and shooting, of fishing in any kind of water, his pursuit of Pittsburgh capitalism, his flirtatious charm with women, his ready ability to build anything.  I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be the opposite of the man he was. He wanted me to be a lawyer. I majored in English and went to Ireland to pursue a graduate degree in literature. He disapproved—but paid for it all. He never said no even when the distance grew farther and deeper. I don’t think I ever said thank you.

When he divorced my mother, leaving me with the emotional wreckage of her attempted suicide and subsequent dependency, I hated him. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college. He bought me a vintage Austin-Healey in a wordless attempt to say he was sorry. We didn’t speak for three years. He didn’t attend my college graduation or years later my wedding. My life diverged away down pathways he would have found distasteful at best. His disapproval hung like smog over my life, silent but ever-present.

Life repeats itself even when we don’t want it to. I said I would never divorce yet have twice.

Today I ask myself would I have turned out differently, made other decisions, had his influence not been such a heavy weight on my shoulders? Would I have been less fearful of being myself, not some anti-Dad?

I can’t create a life that didn’t happen. The past needs to be placed securely in the past drawer. I don’t need to be the man I wound up being. I’m still trying to figure that out—at this late but not too-late stage.

And I can’t know the effect my life, the deeds of my life, has had on my own sons. They are each remarkable men, making remarkable choices, leading remarkable lives. Having been a burden in the past, perhaps having left unknown scars I can only imagine, I live today knowing that all I can do is not be foolish, not be a burden, build my own future on right decisions, and express my unconditional love in as dependency-free ways as I can.

I will try to think fondly of my father today. Think of him as the man he was and not the father he wasn’t. May he rest in peace.

Touch, remembered

Can we ever really know someone else? We can touch; we listen; we see. That smell that only she owns, precisely hers, that instantly takes you to a place that once had meaning. Was that love? That only touching her caused instant tumescence. Was that lust? Was it knowledge? Did I ever know her?

A tear in my heart, healed over, is only the memory inside of three women. They were the only ones.  The scars aren’t visible. Once painful, no more. Nothing lasts. Not this. People break apart.

Touch, I remember touch
Pictures came with touch
A painter in my mind
Tell me what you see

Snapshots of other days. I take them out of the past drawer and look long and deep into the faded technicolor, looking for a sign, something that hinted at what was missing. Late afternoon in the Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, light streaming through the ceiling windows, an organist playing: I couldn’t stop crying, spontaneous tears that flowed and flowed in quiet sadness, provoked by god knows what—the light, the music, the mystery of faith no longer held– maybe the knowledge that so early the seeds of an end were growing and that a great mistake had been made. Another year, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, closed, arriving too late in the rain. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t speak. I stared out of the taxi windows on the way back to the pensione on the Piazza Navona, the rain streaming, Roman streets a blur, my life a blur. My eyes as wet as the rain. Her anger had subsided; she tried to recover the moment. Silent, a great weight lodged deep inside, leaden.

Why is this on my mind, anyway? I was thinking about the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many. I haven’t been entirely honest with you about that.

A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?

Years later we returned. Redemption? Shelley’s heart.  My heart. That day there was light, yet bittersweet , reconciling what couldn’t be put back together because it had never been of one piece.

Tell me what you see
I need something more

Kiss, suddenly alive
Happiness arrive

Another snapshot: another woman, another time. Walking in the Mission, a man stopped us and said we were a beautiful couple. We were a beautiful couple. Love was the answer, then. The only time in my life. San Francisco was a dream. She was that dream.

Hunger like a storm
How do I begin?

A room within a room
A door behind a door

I remember her touch. I didn’t need more.  Then I needed more. Happiness arrived for the first time, true happiness. Amsterdam in the snow. One time out of all time.

Touch, where do you lead?
I need something more
Tell me what you see
I need something more

Was the more I wanted too much? She thought so, said so.  It’s what she saw and it frightened her. The expectation was too heavy. It was too heavy for me, too, and nearly sunk me. JP said happiness is a small boat on a very rough ocean. The boat made it to safe harbor. That life departed, another began. Short-lived. Unlucky triad.

My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it.

Hold on
If love is the answer you hold

Touch, sweet touch
You’ve given me too much to feel

If love is the answer, what was the question? I was always asking.

Sweet touch
You’ve almost convinced me I’m real
I need something more

This is an important thing, which I have told many people…When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.

Grace: free to be, free to act.  What would that look like in my life? Would I be a different man? Would I take another close to my heart? Would I choose differently? Try another way?

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Thanks to Daft Punk (Touch) and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)

The Dreaded 9th

February 9th. The dreaded 9th of February. I wonder if she remembers?  I didn’t.

February 9, 2019. Today’s the second-year anniversary of the afternoon Brenda told me she no longer wanted to be married, didn’t love me anymore, wanted to be on her own. Ironically, we had been to Bobby Roper’s memorial service at the South End—ironic because it was Bobby who named the 9th of February the Dreaded 9th, allegedly the day when the water in the Bay is the coldest.

We got home from the memorial and Brenda said, “we need to talk.”

Cold water on a cold day.

And it didn’t occur to me today until a friend mentioned the cold water reference. Two years past, one in Boston. The days were long at first, the nights painful. Then the days slipped by unmarked by memory.

Regret? No, not much. The times it was good it was lovely. Then it wasn’t. I don’t think she could help it, the outcome was ordained. I chose not to see the signs, the patterns that ought to have been so evident. Only in hindsight.

Love is cancelled. Never again. And it’s okay.

Sunday Night, January 31, 2021.

Another birthday milestone passed. A new year begun with the old catastrophe worsened. Like Odin’s ravens seeking news from an oracle who can only weep at what she sees. This is the world today. I’m glad not to be young.

It’s cold tonight in Boston, low single digit temperatures. A snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow through Tuesday. Winter in New England. I’ve now been here a year, a peculiar year of pandemic lockdown. In so many ways 2020 was a good year despite the virus, a better year than the misfortunes of 2019. Adam recovered in 2020. I recovered in 2020. I settled into my small apartment, overcrowded with books and pictures and my painting easel in the middle of it all. Ray’s CDs added a wall of music. It’s warm and cozy and a bit eccentric, the way I like it and couldn’t live when sharing space with Brenda. The wounds of her memory are healed. If I were a praying man I would pray for her but I am not so I don’t. Her soul is hers to redeem which of course it always was. And since she believes in neither souls nor redemption there’s nothing left to ponder. The Chairman gathers his misguided children in mysterious ways, to the peril of those who may mistakenly fall in love with them.

Here on Bennington Street in Orient Heights I swam in the harbor across the street at Constitution Beach most days of summer and fall. Lucky for me since all the pools are closed, and Walden Pond a drive away. Many mornings Sam would join me, a strong companion as we navigated our course from boat buoy to boat buoy, a zigzag swim between the beach and the western runways of Logan Airport, empty planes from Europe descending like giant swans landing on still water. Other days I would swim alone in late afternoon after work, always the only swimmer at the beach.

It’s hard to imagine the next ten years, maybe twenty. Decline will come, perhaps not harshly. Not yet anyway. Miles to go before I sleep. I’ve been visiting my longtime friend JKD across the state and slightly south in Columbia County, New York, and take inspiration in her 93 years, never a day not working on a project, a plan, a new venture, a new idea. May I have more years with her yet.

Still, for all my creature comfort, I feel the country is at an end of time. Not that it will collapse, as social order has collapsed under Trump, but that the cataclysmic reckonings of the past years will take a toll that cannot be repaid. The divisions are too deep, the wounds too deep to heal without jagged scars.  Some will never heal and will bleed forever until the victims die.

I see this every day in the microcosm of my work at Fletcher. Civil discourse among students and alumni is a quaint memory. That diplomacy is a founding pillar of the school now stands as some kind of antiquated relic.

Meanwhile the winter storm warning is in full effect. Snow hasn’t begun to fall here in East Boston but over west in Worchester it’s coming down hard. Tufts has closed for the day; I’m waiting to hear about Hult.  My classes are late afternoon and likely will go remote. I missed these closed-in snow days in San Francisco. Living in an apartment I have no snow to shovel or cares about the roof—unlike the years in Briarcliff Manor when a snow fall meant hours of snow removal and worries about ice dams in the gutters. Here, I can simply enjoy the silent snow, watching the frenzy of house sparrows at my balcony feeder. They will be grateful for the food today.

That’s the irony of the time we’re in: gratitude within this pervading atmosphere of gloom. Today’s a day not to look too far away into the future. Stay home.  Be warm. Let the snow cover all the ugliness of this decaying world, at least for a day or two.

December 31, 2020

Here we are, finally, at the end of a tumultuous year, the worst year in people’s memory the world over. I imagine a thousand people, many thousands, are writing up their summaries of what this year has wrought, what’s it’s meant to them, how it’s changed the world forever, what the “new normal” will be, how we’ve all been transformed by the global pandemic, by the racial reckonings of this past summer, by the reign of the god-awful Donald Trump. Yes, it’s been a year like no other.

Here at the year’s end I’ll take my own measure, look back on all this year has brought me, what light it cast, or didn’t, on the life I hoped to achieve by moving to Boston. And if I separate the atmospheric gloom of 2020 from the year I experienced as life lived for real, I can only admit, without embarrassment, that the year hasn’t been so bad. In fact, it’s been a fine year, a successful transition from one life that ended in 2019 to a new one that began on January 7th. For me, 2019 was far worse a year than 2020.

By coincidence I’m reading a newly published book titled On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins.  I read a review in The New Yorker and ordered a copy from Amazon. It came in a day.

The book is a combination of memoir and a literary analysis of writers and their books or quotes that deal with the theme of lives not lived, what might have been…and the world as lived being the only world we really have.

The first chapter opens with an Oscar Wilde quote: “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”

In a roundabout way I think that’s the harm I’ve done myself: not living my real life. But then, I really don’t know, because I never lived any other life. What would my real life have looked like, if not the one I have lived?

I’m past the age when new life chapters hang tantalizingly available, like low hanging fruit, ripe and full, ready to be picked at random and eaten with delight. Yet in 2020 I did embark on a new life chapter, not entirely randomly picked. I decided early on in the dissolution of my marriage that not only my marriage but my entire West Coast adventure was over. And that it hadn’t been in vain at all—very much the opposite—but it was over.

One thing Brenda said to me near the end that hurt, hurt more than most of the hurtful things she said, was that she had lost the five years she had spent with me. Like I had been some kind of down payment on a future life that had to be forfeited, lost, never to be regained, with no accruing benefit while it matured in the bank deposit of life.

Once before in my own life I thought that way at the end of a marriage and it made me suicidal. All those years wasted, the life I wanted not lived.  But the fallacy of that kind of thinking, the death trap, is its negation of experience, its negation of agency, and will, and life lived on life’s terms, unknowable and expansive in its mystery. We only get one life, no matter how much we think about the lives we haven’t led.

In the book I’m reading there’s a lengthy discussion of Frost’s great and mysterious poem The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Traveling two roads as one traveler. Is the road we didn’t travel by the harm we do to ourselves? Unexplored pathways, untaken journeys?  The only way we can ever approximate two lives is sequentially, and then the second will always be built in some manner on the foundation of the first.

If life harmed me, can I make amends to myself, and try on a new life? I’m living a new life in Boston. How new do I want to make it?

I’ll end this reckoning with a gratitude list. It seems an appropriate way to end 2020, to set aside the virus, Trump, the deep divisions of the country, and focus on all the good this year has seen in my life.

I’m grateful that Brenda ended our marriage. I know we cared for each other; yet care does not equate to love. She had the courage to end what only would have continued in tranquilized obviousness, safe but soulless. That I fought so hard to save what wasn’t salvageable reflects only on my insecurities, not on any hope for a better future.

Brenda didn’t close a door in my life. She opened one.

In moving out I gained a new lifelong friendship with RD. I experienced a new and vastly different part of the Bay Area. I was able to be close to my son Adam when he needed me most. I connected with other new friends, learned the freedom and joy of painting from one afternoon spent with Dennis P.

I never waivered in my decision to move to Boston. New York was never really an option. Somehow I knew my next road taken was also a return. It has not been a disappointment.

I’m grateful to my son Sam and his wife Saga. They gave me a home for two months while I found my own in a new city. More than shelter what they gave me was an open embrace of welcome and family love.

I’m grateful to have rented the small and unfashionable apartment I chose in Orient Heights. It’s warm and comfortable inside, a marvelous evocation of me, clutter and all. It’s provided access to the beach across the street and the opportunity to swim in the harbor, sheltered by the Logan Airport runways. I’m grateful to Sam for joining me in my passion for open water swimming, a new swim mate for life.

I’m grateful to Hult for transferring my teaching role to their Cambridge campus. I’m grateful to the many new students I’ve taught there this year, and to the new friendships being formed.

I’m grateful for another year with TP, his friendship and faith in what I can offer.

I’m grateful to my friend EM, for recommending me to the interim role as marketing director at Fletcher. Whatever the final outcome is, the experience has been illuminating.

I’m grateful to be living on my own. I’m grateful that I don’t want another woman in my life. I don’t mean that in a sexist or defeatist way. The deepest love and union I’ve ever had was with a woman, the one I didn’t marry. Now, though, the idea doesn’t appeal. I’m open for revision, but for now, no. I’m open, too, to other options. Free to be, free to act.

I’m grateful to have kept the virus at bay. It’s one day at a time, an exercise in careful living. In a weird way, I’m grateful for what the virus has created, a world of Zoom possibility, of connecting and reconnecting with friends old and new that would not be possible in real life. Maybe that’s a piece of the new normal people talk about.

I’m sad to have lost my friend Ray yet grateful to have his music in my life, a daily reminder of friendship and shared experience. I’m grateful for thirteen years of sobriety, the same as Ray. I’m grateful for my many friends in the fellowship, men in my life who share our common destiny.

I’m grateful that my friendship with JS in San Francisco remains as rock solid and lasting as it ever was. Our book club of two is a success! That friendship is another door that Brenda opened, for which I’m forever grateful.

I’m grateful for my friendship with JKD and the life at Midwood into which she so warmly welcomes me. She, and my other friends, prove to me the life affirming value of friendship over transitory love. Another kind of love.

I’m grateful for little things, my love of books and bookstores, unabated even in the face of space limitations.

Most of all, above all else, I’m grateful for my three sons—the sure reproof for any regret for taking that fork in the road when I married Evelyn. My life obviously would not be the same, and obviously it would have been diminished. 2020 has seen Adam recover from 2019’s cancer. It’s forged new bonds with Sam and his family. The virus has curtailed travel to visit Adam in Oakland and David in New York, though it hasn’t lessened our bonds.

I have no predictions or resolutions for 2021. No one could have predicted 2020.

It’s one day at a time, keeping the past in the past drawer, and being open to the possibility, always, of a future that didn’t exist before.

Notes at Year’s End

Christmas Eve, 2020

It’s my first Christmas in Boston, and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent alone. Sam and family are in Finland. Adam is in Oakland, both he and Rachel as residents on hospital call. David and family are in New Hampshire. It’s okay, even better than okay. After the heavy snow of last weekend the weather’s turned warm and wet. It’s to rain tomorrow with high winds and power outages predicted. Home cooked lamb shanks on the menu tonight.

Foregoing expectations is the sure route to a happier life.

Christmas Day, 2020

Warm rain and wind all day, at times torrential. The good news is that the rain washed away the piled and dirty remains of our two feet of snow from a week ago Thursday. It’s the way of city snow: the white and silent beauty lasts only a day or two.

On that snowy Thursday I drove from Boston over to the Hudson Valley to stay with JKD at Midwood. On Friday morning it was -4°, the river steel grey with the snow blanketed Catskills beyond looking as austere and beautiful as I have ever seen them. I can’t recall ever being at Midwood in the snow, when snow filled the landscape and set the great pink house even further apart from the less civilized world, an island of remarkable quiet and joy. Time spent at Midwood is a subtraction from the gloom of the world.

Several trips over to the town of Hudson, now so tony beyond anything it ever was. I remember back in the late ‘70’s when I lived in Pine Plains no one would go to down-and-out Hudson. Nothing but bars and abandoned houses and New York’s last brothels. Then it succumbed to drugs and gunfights before gay New Yorkers discovered its historic architectural bones and slowly began restoring the houses and buildings to their current immaculate state. A year of Covid closures has taken a toll, with many empty storefronts, but for the holidays most of the antique shops and art galleries were open and the upscale housewares stores thriving. I made two trips to my favorite shop, The Red Chair, finding its vintage French treasures too special to pass up, and adding to my collection of 19th century confit pots, perfect for small plants in my small apartment. It’s an indulgence.

On Sunday Joan invited a new friend for dinner, a young and amiable philosophy professor from nearby Bard College, and the table conversation ranged from the merits of different translations of the Iliad to the late writings of Hannah Arendt. Our new brilliant and charming friend turned out to be a poor driver however, skidding his car off the winding driveway in the icy dark. It had to be towed out of the snow bank the next morning.

In the nearby town of Catskill, across the Rip van Winkle Bridge from Hudson—all of Columbia County feeling like it just sprang from a Washington Irving tale, painted by Frederick Church– I found a gem of a used bookstore and filled a bag with must-haves including three first edition Philip Pullman’s I’ll send to Maxwell for his birthday and Nigel Nicolson’s short biography of Virginia Woolf, which I finished this morning (December 28th). As much a memoir as a biography—as Vita Sackville-West’s son he knew VW and the Bloomsbury scene well—it’s much my favorite of the many biographies of VW I’ve read over the years. Nicolson capture’s VW in all her acerbity, brilliance, wit, and compassion.

December is nearing its end, the end of a strange and unhopeful year. The wages of the pandemic, of the BLM reckoning, of Trump’s destructive energy—hardly abating despite his election loss, the loss he refuses to accept—have all colluded to make the year one of continuous stress and anxiety in day-by-day anticipation of the next calamity.

Still, beneath this atmospheric gloom, 2020 has not been personally a bad year. Moving to Boston has been a success. Work has expanded. I have avoided the virus. I swam in the harbor most days of the summer and fall. Adam recovered from cancer and Rachel is expecting a baby boy in June. A Christmas spent without Brenda’s killjoy displeasure.

My bonds with all three boys have deepened despite the inability to travel. I mourn the loss of my friend Ray, though his music fills my apartment with his memory every day. Moreover, inheriting Ray superb collection of CDs has inspired my own renewal of musical passions, building on new discoveries and adding movements of my own.

Sigur Rós’s brooding Icelandic musical saga “Odin’s Raven Magic” has been playing in a nearly continuous loop for the past week, its deeply melancholy sense of doom overlaid with rich waves of harmonics that made me cry the first time I listened to it, somehow suits the year’s ending. The poem from which this musical collaboration springs tells a Norse myth in which the god Odin sends his ravens Huginn and Muginn to an oracle seeking answers to a catastrophic future.

She can only weep when she sees what lies ahead.

Welcome 2021.

August 31, 2020

I meant to write about our last walk.

We had nothing to do but gaze—

Seven years, now nothing but a diverting smile,

Dalliance by a river, a speeding swan…

the misleading promise

to last with joy as long as our bodies,

nostalgia pulverized by thought,

nomadic as yesterday’s whirling snow,

all whiteness splotched.

Robert Lowell

One year ago today we said goodbye in her living room, me behind the leather coach, she standing in the open space reserved for yoga. She said she was sorry our marriage didn’t work out, or a few words to that effect. I said I was, too. That was all. The end lasted perhaps less than a minute. Then she was gone– as I had requested, in order to spend the last night alone before moving out forever on September 1st.  No sad goodbyes at the garage door, at least not sadder than the one we had standing in the living room.  Sad enough.

I saw her briefly twice since that August afternoon: once, fleetingly, when she handed me mail and lied to me at a South End Rowing Club members’ meeting; a second time at the South End holiday party where she refused to acknowledge my presence.

Misleading promises…that might be the swansong of our marriage. Promises never kept. Both guilty as charged. Nothing lasting with joy as long as our bodies. No joy. No bodies.

One year is a short time in a person’s life and an eternity. From that afternoon a year ago, still standing in her house, to today in my apartment in Boston, I chart a journey measured in more than the 3,100 miles that separate us: a journey of renewal.

She always said, “Plan the work, work the plan.” That’s what I did—(though she accused me of inconsistency.) The pieces fell into place, in sequence, on the schedule she allowed me to set: complete the spring teaching semester; acquire a driver’s license; take the leadership course at UCLA; undergo hand surgery; pack up all my belongings; rent and load the Pod; move out September 1st. Clockwork.

Through the exceptional generosity of friends I was given a house in West Oakland in which to live for the remainder of the year, a gesture for which I will be always grateful. The house, combined with my friends’ support, proved to be the transitional respite from the deadening despair of divorce that I badly needed. My friends understood; they knew her longer than I did and saw what I had failed to see.

Days after moving being in West Oakland took on a new significance. It couldn’t have been foreseen. On September 5th I learned from Adam that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Treatment was nearby at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. I was able to accompany him to the bi-weekly chemo sessions, drive him home…be there with him when it mattered most.

The autumn sped by: teaching at Hult, weekends with Adam, Adam’s Point farmer’s market, walking to West Oakland Bart, discovering open studios, swimming at the South End.  Sam visited. David visited. Thanksgiving and Christmas with Rachel’s family. Then it was time to move. I was sad to be leaving Adam during his final weeks of chemo. He was in good hands with Rachel, her family, and his Bowdoin friends.

I loaded a final lot of boxes, my bike, odds and ends, into the Pod, stored close by in West Oakland.  It would wait for shipment until I had a place to live. Work the plan.

January/February with Sam, Saga, Miki, and Ethan: a safe and comforting haven.  On March 1st I moved to my apartment in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, directly across from Constitution Beach. Purposeful for open water swimming, a walk to Sam’s, and a lucky choice once grounded by Covid-19.  I’ve suffered little if at all.

It’s the last evening in August, an evening one year ago I spent alone in a house that was never my home, least of all on that night. I had only my packed suitcases to remind me I once lived there. Tonight, while only a rented apartment, my place is truly my home. Maybe it’s the privilege of all single dwellers, that everything is ordered to one’s own taste. Sharing space can be harder than sharing a life.

I’m listening to a classic recording of Victoria de los Angeles singing Madame Butterfly. I found the CD set in a used bookstore in West Stockbridge only a week ago. I’m a sucker for the pure glorious rapture of this opera. I’ve heard it at the Met, the Berlin Opera, and the Munich Opera.  It never fails. I thank my late friend Ray, and his legacy CD collection, for rekindling my joy in music—especially now.

What have I learned during this year away from her, and my life with her, and my life in California?

That the northeast is my home. The golden hills never sparked joy or any sense of belonging. I was always an expat.

That neither Ellen nor Brenda were mistakes. But establishing these relationships as a piece of my identity was.

That my own freedom to be, freedom to act is not dependent on another.

That I love open water swimming.

That my best friends remain my best friends.

That marriage is no longer a desired state.

That being close to the geography I love is important.

That life isn’t as long or as happy as we want it to be.

That happiness begins inside.

That I miss my dog, but don’t want one on my own (as much as a solace he would have been during this novel shutdown).

Now, a year away, I’m glad not to be there. I didn’t feel that then, or even know it was possible. I think the outcome could have been otherwise had there been a will to make it so.  She didn’t have that will, and I realize now the end was inevitable.

I am back where I belong.

Late August Afternoons

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood, the wide expanse of the upper Hudson River flowing beyond the lawn, the dark hills of the Catskills, and the lady of the house seated on the great porch overlooking a view that could have been painted by one of the luminous Hudson River School artists living just up the road.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: a respite from all the many ills that afflict this summer of 2020.  The Covid-19 pandemic, Trump, George Floyd and racial discord, protests, fires consuming California—the ancient Anderson Redwood Forest in Guerneville burnt to stumps some nearly a thousand years old. It’s hard to find hope in any of this. Yet, here on the Hudson River in Columbia County, time stands still. Morning mist on the river lifts to sunlit afternoons and dazzling sunsets before the stars come out at night, and the lone green channel marker blinks across the water. No other lights mare the darkness of the night horizon on the farther shore.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: in this solitude I swim naked in the warm river, snaking through the water lilies to reach open water, the current at times so strong I swim in place. The rare freedom of my unclothed body only matched by the clouds floating above. Free to be, for a moment in time.

Can this be real?

Time can never relax like this again.

I’m reminded of Richard Murphy’s most beautiful poem, The Woman of the House. I’m not writing an elegy here, as he was, but I, too, am writing of a woman of the house, the woman who created this gracious home from a Livingston family legacy, a place where grace resides and beauty is a by-word of everyday living. Every time I’m here I wonder if it will be my last. The lady of the house is ninety-three. And yet another late August has come and I’m here again, participating in the immense privilege of life at Midwood.  Life is slower but undiminished. Time itself seems to have slowed down.

It was her house where we spent holidays,

With candles to bed, and ghostly stories:

In the lake of her heart we were islands

Where the wild asses galloped in the wind.

No wild asses here, but oh the wind did blow on Thursday when the sky erupted in thunder and lightning, downpour obscuring the river and mountains in a tremendous grey blanket of rain. By night the stars were back and dinner on the veranda with friends, to me one old, one new.

And those happy days, when in spite of rain

We’d motor west where the salmon-boats tossed,

She would sketch on the pier among the pots

Waves in a sunset, or the rising moon.

I’m thinking of other times here, times when I brought the women in my life to share this out-of-time experience of hospitality and warmth.  The many shad parties with Evelyn, the one with Ellen, the last time here with Brenda. Did she know then she no longer loved me, would find a way to end our marriage? It was the last thing that would have occurred to me then… but now, when I remember back it’s only the wistful end I see. I see it in her eyes, in the way she never held my hand, or showed any loving affection, the way she never touched me, never held me close. No lovemaking in our bedroom named Washburn, its antique quilt covering only a bed for sleeping.

They are gone, those women in my life. And yet I am here in the immense privilege of Midwood. Does friendship trump love? It’s lasted more than forty years—so the answer must surely be yes.

Maybe that’s love by another name.

This time I’m in the far bedroom, Bamboo, named for the eight-piece craftsman bedroom set adorned with bamboo inspired carving, a charming period piece of whimsical delight. I fall asleep at night to the sound of cicadas coming through the river -facing  windows, broken only by the occasional northbound Amtrak train.

Back in Boston this time away is a healing memory, late August afternoons in my blood. I have jam from Montgomery Place to see me through the winter (peach, apricot, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black currant) and a small painting of the Hudson at Midwood to revive what fades in my eyes. I will paint many more scenes myself as the season wanes.

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood will last when the inevitable more ephemeral days to come alter life in petty ways that must be fought against with all the energy I can muster, a debt repaid every day.

Please one more time. One more afternoon at Midwood, with the lady of the house laying the table for dinner, with friends old and new, civilization realized, out of time, out of place in this dumbed-down, tragic world and time we live in.

Through our inheritance all things have come,

The forms, the means, all by our family ;

The good of being alive was given by them,

We ourselves limit that legacy.

Zoom Illumination

Was she a coward because I was also on the Zoom call, fully visible?  Is that why she never turned her camera on, as everyone else did during the Board meeting? Or was remaining visually anonymous her already always fear of exposure, of commitment?  Of hiding in the name of privacy? That someone might see and see through her moral hypocrisy? Is that why she could only affirm in Chat others’ braver and public—publically visible—comments on divisive topics? Such a small but illuminating example of the way she wound up being.

Why do I care is the better question to ask. Yet I ask these questions anyway. Yes I know it’s obsessive. For god’s sake put the past in the past and forget about her.

She imagines she’s such a revolutionary, wearing her ruby-studded hammer and sickle pin in solidarity with people she never associates with. Meanwhile she married me. Such contradiction isn’t an excuse for hurtful behavior. It must confuse her as much as everyone else.  (But no, she told me she had clarity of vision in her decision to dissolve our marriage, unilaterally, without compromise, without attempting to create a new possibility.)

Meanwhile it will be soon a year since I moved out of her house, out of her life, our life together.  A year. It feels like yesterday, standing in her living room, saying goodbye for the last time, nearly the last words we said directly to one another. The only other time, a few months later, she lied to me when it would have been so simple, so gracious, to have told the truth. A yes rather than no.

Her refusal to acknowledge what I knew to be so summed up a lifetime of avoidance, a lifetime of leaving.

The only other time I saw her she refused to acknowledge my presence. Is this the person she holds herself out to be?

I will never make the mistake again of trying to fit into someone else’s life. Maybe it was a mistake trying to fit into her life. She said it was, that she didn’t want me to fit into her life. though not to have would have been a life so separate as to question its validity as a marriage.  I gained much by fitting in, and was happy to do so. My losing was a loss for both of us that she could never admit.

Never trying again may mean never having another relationship. Never is a long and lonely time. I’m content with that. That doesn’t mean a loss of companionship, or even sex, Where this will come from I don’t know.  I refuse to give up my new freedom to be, to act—or to ask someone else to align with me. The ingredients to such alignment quickly spoil. To her credit she taught me this lesson.

What do I want now? Easier to say what I don’t want.


August 2020

August 2019 was the last month we lived together. It was the seventh month of living under the dark cloud of our marriage dissolving.  Month by month, day by day, without much drama, the life we once had together, thin as it turned out to be, edged closed to exit. Communication ceased. The drawn-out timing was my request to which she reluctantly agreed. It was hard, maybe terrible, for both us.  As I expressed myself here as elsewhere, she retreated deeper inside the protective shell that shielded her from explanation, responsibility.  She feared quotations of the truth and went to extreme, even legal, lengths to suppress any revelation.  The truth can bear only so much sunlight.

August 2019 was a difficult month. Recovering from surgery with a bandaged and unworkable left hand, I had to sort, sell, and pack all of my earthly belongings to be ready to move out of her house on September 1st.  Tension in our house while rarely breaking the surface was in the air we breathed. I have said before thank god we had our dog Bebe-a loving distraction from the lack of love between us. It was a time of unrelenting sadness. Was what could have been ever possible?

August 2020.  I have been gone nearly a year. We have had no communication but for a few lawyer letters summing up the divorce and an impersonal forwarding of my mail. She refuses to communicate. The Covid-19 shutdown and restrictions have undoubtedly not given her the return-to-life-before-Niland she envisioned, though I’m sure she’s happier on her own. A shared life is not in her DNA, as her many marriages and broken off relationships prove. Already always leaving is a thwart to commitment.

I’m beginning my sixth month in Boston. I moved across the country to be away from her, and to be closer to roots and geography I love. The pandemic has slowed my plans, too. I rely on my friends in San Francisco, unable to begin making new friends here. I am lucky and grateful to have family, my son Sam and his wife Saga and twin boys, nearby. Since moving in January one of my three closest friends in San Francisco has died. My best friend Josh remains in close contact and will remain so. We miss one another and compensate with video calls and our book club of two. My other friend Michael while a special presence in my life is occupied with his role as director of City Center at the San Francisco Zen Center—especially consuming in these viral times.

Do I resent her for ending our marriage?  I resent her more for not being the person I thought she was. I’m better off now, on my own, in nearly every way. A loveless, sexless, judgmental marriage isn’t what I ever wanted. The 2019 upending of my life that she caused is past–the past put in the past drawer of life. The logistics all fell into place, with help of generous friends and family who provided shelter, support, and love. I was never alone.

What’s so right now is the continuing pandemic with all its attendant uncertainties; the daily horror of Trump and his sycophantic Republicans; BlackLivesMatter and social unrest. And just last week a fatal shark attack on a swimmer off Bailey Island in Maine!

Amidst this atmospheric gloom, I swim in Boston Harbor nearly every day, teach my students, paint watercolors, read, listen to Ray’s huge collection of classical CDs, attend Zoom meetings, connect with friends virtually. My life is full.

I miss my dog. I miss companionship and the intimacy that love could inspire. I don’t miss her.